Duke Humfrey’s Library at the Bodleian
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Sacking of the libraries

Alexander Larman questions whether libraries should sell historic manuscripts to solve short-term financial problems

This article is taken from the January/February 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.


Richard Ovenden, librarian of the Bodleian in Oxford, recently published an impassioned account of the importance of collections of the written word. In Burning the Books (John Murray, £20), he examines the way in which libraries have been pillaged throughout history, from the (exaggerated) destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria to the Nazis systematically laying waste to priceless manuscripts and documents. Ovenden writes: “Throughout history, libraries and archives have been subject to attack. At times, librarians and archivists have risked and lost their lives for the preservation of knowledge.”

Rugby seemed bemused that its action could be interpreted as anything other than a good deed

It is hard not to be stirred by this. Yet at a time where libraries find their finances ever squeezed, the threat of deaccession for necessary financial gain looms large over many collections. The Royal College of Physicians recently found itself mired in controversy for its reported plans to sell off a historic bequest of rare books, worth up to £10 million, to cover a budgetary shortfall. Rugby School went a step further, selling hundreds of books from its library at auction in order to create revenue for bursary funds. The once unthinkable has now happened: great institutions are looking at their libraries not as a near-sacred repository of knowledge but as a handy source of easy cash in difficult times.

Professor Andrew Goddard, president of the RCP, has attempted to place the college’s actions in perspective. He has stressed that, contrary to newspaper reports, no sale of any books from the collection had been decided on, but stated that, due to the loss of income arising from the pandemic, it was facing a significant deficit, and looking at means of raising funds. As Goddard acknowledged, if a sale was decided upon — and Bonhams has already been consulted as to the value of the major items — the Arts Council would have to be informed, and “any disposal of a donated item would [have to] be consistent for the terms of donation”. His argument is that the valuable books were largely non-medical in nature, and therefore surplus to day-to-day requirements for the college. Their sale (should it go ahead) would stabilise the institution at a difficult time. 

It seems clear that Goddard is no disinterested party, judging by his open letter on the subject, in which he asks, “Should the RCP sell some of its assets less directly related to its core purpose in order to prevent loss of staff, and risk its ability to deliver its charitable mission?” He concludes: “I believe strongly (and have been consistent in this throughout my time with the RCP) that the college is not its buildings or its treasures, but its people. That is the fellowship, the membership, and the staff.” 

Nonetheless, the membership will be contacted in order to canvass their views, and hopefully these will be taken into consideration before a potentially ruinous decision is made. Judging by media coverage, many members are violently opposed to such a sale, which incidentally would cost the RCP its status as a recognised museum. 

Other leading public schools have a rather less blasé attitude towards their libraries’ deaccessioning

Rugby didn’t bother to canvass its staff, current or former pupils for their opinion. Some, including the author A.N. Wilson, were horrified. He described the sale as “terrible”, and the governors as “vandals”, adding, “I would never dream now of leaving anything to that school because they would just flog it.” When I contacted Rugby, the school seemed bemused that its action could be interpreted as anything other than a good deed, especially since a previous sale of the school’s art in 2018 had raised £15 million for bursary funds. 

I was told: “Rugby is a school not a museum . . . [and] as a charity, the school is committed to using its resources to benefit current and future students. The governing body believes that in order to do that it was desirable to sell the books and increase the school’s bursary provision.”

Even though some of the books listed for sale were marked “withdrawn from sale”, suggesting that someone had had second thoughts about the wisdom of their disposal, the school’s perspective was that the vast majority — which included an early folio of Shakespeare’s plays, a first edition of A Christmas Carol and an important letter from Siegfried Sassoon — did not need to be preserved. Its spokesman said: “The books do not fall within the scope of the archive collection as they are not related to the history of the school.” 

Other leading public schools have a rather less blasé attitude towards their libraries’ deaccessioning and disposal. Winchester College informed me it had no plans to dispose of rare and valuable books from the Fellows’ Library. It has only done so once, when the manuscript of Malory’s Morte d’Arthur was sold to the British Library for £150,000 in 1976, with the specific proviso that the so-called “Winchester manuscript” would be made available for scholarship and to the general public. The money raised was used for bursaries. 

It is a brave, or foolhardy, organisation that would place a monetary value upon its collection of rare books

Eton College said that its collection “is a rare book and manuscript library of national significance, used regularly in teaching Etonians as well as pupils from local state schools. The stewardship of its holdings, which includes actively adding to the collection, adheres to a formal collection management policy following heritage sector standards.” Items have, however, been sold in the past: “As at many historic libraries, in past centuries books then considered duplicates were from time to time sold to fund the purchase of new acquisitions or exchanged with other libraries.” The college statutes were amended in 2016 to include the preservation of its collections and historic buildings for the benefit of the public, who can visit its museums and library on Sundays, free of charge.

Other major public and private libraries seem unlikely to follow the example set by Rugby and, potentially, the RCP. Richard Gibby, head of governance at the British Library, commented: “The British Library does not sell off books, manuscripts or other items in the permanent collection.” There are only “limited circumstances” in which the Library may deaccession or dispose of any item in the collection, generally in the case of superfluous duplicates or in the specific circumstances set out in the British Library Act 1972. 

This is echoed by the London Library, who said:

While we do periodically have to manage the collection to create space for new material, deaccessioning of parts of the collection to raise funds is not something the Library is contemplating or forms part of our collections management or fundraising strategy. All our collection remains accessible. The vast bulk of it can be borrowed and the special collection of rare or valuable books is accessible to members under supervision on site.

Given the outcry at the idea of Rugby and the RCP selling off their libraries, it is unsurprising that few other institutions would wish to follow suit. Just as the Royal Academy’s proposal to sell Michaelangelo’s Taddei Tondo in order to preserve staff jobs led to an uproar, it is a brave, or foolhardy, organisation that would openly place a monetary value upon its collection of rare and in many cases irreplaceable books, and license the possibility of further sales in the future. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it has been a long time since the Bodleian has had any kind of sale. Richard Ovenden told me:

We did deaccession ‘permanent’ collection items in the past, though not for a very long time. There were quite high-profile ‘duplicate’ sales in the nineteenth century, and occasionally they reappear on the market, with our deaccession stamp on them. This was very common among great libraries during this time but not something we actively have done for a long time. On a more practical level for our books that are used by readers more frequently, we would only withdraw material from stock that was damaged or had been defaced, for example. But in these cases, we would always seek to replace the item if it is still available.

What is the role of the librarian in making such decisions? Ovenden is typically nuanced: “Deaccessioning has always been part of the proper functioning of a library, whether a small personal collection or a great research library. The Bodleian’s policy is that we only deaccession on very rare occasions, and never leave Oxford without a last physical copy (where one exists) for preservation purposes.”

He himself is temperamentally inclined to keep rather than dispose of books. (“As my own house runs out of walls to put shelves on, it is increasingly clear that this is not a sustainable approach.”) Rather, he looks to other libraries to offer an ecumenical approach. “Deaccessioning only works when libraries collaborate. This is where prioritisation comes in, but also collaboration.”

Even as the Bodleian remains a sanctuary for rare books under his care, it is a reminder that not all librarians have such an enlightened approach, and we will only be poorer for their short-sighted disposals of their treasures.


As of 8 January, the Royal College of Physicians have decided not to sell any of their rare book collection at present. A future sale remains a possibility.

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